Priest in Sex Lawsuit Still a Parish Cleric
He Denies Wrongdoing and Church Officials Say the Woman Didn't Tell Them. but She Did Contact Police

By Richard Winton
Downloaded January 14, 2004

Despite the Roman Catholic Church's zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has allowed a priest to continue working in a Pasadena parish nearly two years after a woman told police the pastor molested her when she was 17.

The woman told authorities in April 2002 that she was molested by Father Walter Fernando when she attended the Pico Rivera church he was serving. She said Fernando molested her in 1981 during trips to a Downey movie theater, in his car, at the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, and in his parish bedroom after she turned 18, according to police reports.

With detectives listening, the woman telephoned Fernando in May 2002 to confront him. Fernando, 59, made statements during the conversation that police felt corroborated her account, said Los Angeles Police Det. James Brown. He declined to specify what the priest said.

Donald Steier, attorney for Fernando associate pastor at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Pasadena said his client denied wrongdoing.

LAPD investigators said Fernando was not charged in 2002 because the alleged molestation which involved fondling was not a felony in the early 1980s. For a period of years, California law allowed prosecution of felony sex crimes from past decades. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional last summer.

Had Fernando's conduct occurred today, Brown said, "it would have been an egregious and serious felony sexual assault. But based upon the laws at the time, charges could not be filed against him."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a zero-tolerance policy for sexually abusive priests in June 2002. Under the policy, a priest, deacon or other church employee must be temporarily removed from any ministry or function when a "credible allegation" of sexual abuse is lodged against him. The policy also requires any priest or deacon guilty of sexual abuse to be permanently removed from ministry.

The policy was amended in December 2002 to say that if "sufficient evidence" of sexual abuse was found, the priest must immediately go on administrative leave pending a church trial.

J. Michael Hennigan, the archdiocese's attorney, said that Fernando's case had been "high on the radar screen for some time," but that church officials didn't have sufficient evidence to justify placing him on leave. He said the only information the church had about the woman's accusations came "secondhand" from her attorney and that church officials had not talked to her directly.

Fernando "has vigorously denied all the charges," Hennigan said, adding that the allegations have been reviewed twice by the church's misconduct board. "What do you do when the challenge is, you only have two witnesses? It is 'he said, she said.' "

After inquiries by The Times, archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said Fernando's case will be reviewed by the misconduct board again today. He said the archdiocese has asked to interview the alleged victim and requested that her attorney provide a sworn statement of the accusations.

"What we have so far, then, is a 23-year-old allegation with no firsthand sworn testimony to support it and no further allegations of abuse of any kind from anyone who has been associated with Father Fernando, past or present," he said.

Church critics say the Fernando case shows that priests accused of sexual abuse are allowed to continue serving in parishes.

"This demonstrates the dishonesty of the zero-tolerance pledge," said Father Thomas P. Doyle, who co-wrote a report to U.S. bishops in 1985 warning of problems with abusive priests. "At the very least they should have put him on an administrative hold until this is resolved."

A native of Sri Lanka, Fernando first came to the archdiocese as a visiting priest in 1981 at St. Hilary Church in Pico Rivera. Later that year he moved to St. John Baptist de la Salle Church in Granada Hills. In 1986, Fernando joined the permanent ranks of the archdiocese's priests. He served at St. Rose of Lima Church in Simi Valley, Cathedral Chapel in Los Angeles and St. Gregory the Great Church in Whittier before going to Assumption in 1992.

Fernando continues to say daily Mass at Assumption, which has an elementary school, and conduct other duties, Tamberg said.

The woman, whose identity is being withheld by The Times as a potential victim of a sexual assault, said she came forward after reading about other cases. "I wanted to do what was necessary to stop him from harming anyone else," she said in an interview.

The accusations were first made public in a Times story in August 2002.

Katherine Freberg, an attorney for the alleged victim, said she provided details of the case to an archdiocese attorney in February 2003. A few months later, a Los Angeles grand jury issued a subpoena for Fernando's personnel file from the archdiocese.

Freberg sued in December, claiming Fernando kissed the plaintiff, touched her breasts and forced her to touch him.

Tamberg said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is a strong advocate of the zero-tolerance policy and created similar rules years before the bishops acted.

"There is no one in ministry that we know of in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who has been found to have abused a minor," Tamberg said.

The archdiocese was not aware of the details of the police investigation, he added, and would like to review any information investigators have.

Church officials have told Fernando's parishioners about the allegations but have found no additional alleged victims, Tamberg added.

"They aren't looking to find anyone, as this case demonstrates," said Mary Grant, a spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "If they were really concerned about protecting children, they would pursue this more vigorously."


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